The Mysterious Allure of Shanel Campbell's Bed On Water

Who doesn't love a little intrigue?

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designer Shanel Campbell
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In the weeks leading up to New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2023, TZR will be showcasing a few new names on the show line-up. From emerging young designers to cult-favorite brands, these are the labels to have on your radar. Watch this space for more.

We live in an age of oversharing and overexposure. It’s somewhat normalized that both brands and individuals provide near constant digital updates via Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok (and now, apparently, we also have to BeReal). But in a refreshing contrast to this era of 24/7 availability, designer Shanel Campbell would like to maintain a bit of mystique. There’s an air of mystery surrounding her brand Bed On Water.

For one, the label refuses to be boxed in. Sure, it’s similar to the line of sexy, edgy clubwear the Parsons grad first launched in 2018. Beyond that, however, Campbell envisions Bed On Water as a “creative universe” — an interdisciplinary fashion brand and art house that produces not just clothing, but also graphic design, photography, art, and other media. On the brand’s socials, Campbell plays her cards close to her chest, posting rather infrequently over the past few years for a designer who has been worn by megastars like Solange and Ciara. An added a layer of eeriness? Presenting a recent collection on mannequins (which was actually just because having human models on set wasn’t a viable option; a result of the pandemic). Now, ahead of Bed On Water’s official New York Fashion Week debut, Campbell admits relishing in the intrigue around her work, however unintentional it was.

“I kind of do like being a little bit of a mystery,” she says. “But I want to get to the point where everyone knows the brand,” Campbell tell TZR. “Me, myself, I don’t think people need to know — I’m not a ‘face of the brand’ type person — I just want to be respected. I like creating mystery through the content and stuff. People are always going to think that, because I’m not much of an ‘influencer,’ I’m not out there. But I like to talk!”

Although Campbell doesn’t want to give away too much about her upcoming show, she reveals that it’s meant to be small and simple, but impactful in terms of the environment she’s created around it. “You’re not supposed to feel like you’re in New York City, you’re supposed to feel like you’re in a box that I’ve curated,” she explains. “It’s not necessarily about fashion — there’s fashion there, but it’s supposed to feel like you’re on a set.”

Campbell’s spot at NYFW is the exciting next step in what’s already been a rewarding year for the brand. She was a member of MADE x Paypal’s 2022 class of emerging designers, sending the 20 looks that comprised her Collection 3 down the Brooklyn Bridge Park runway in June. The city was an appropriate backdrop for the Bronx native’s pieces, which are inspired by the gritty urban-ness of her hometown: brash, colorful graffiti, subway chrome, and the kinds of things that can be found discarded on New York’s sidewalks. Her line featured impeccably tailored leather jackets, bodycon tops and micro-miniskirts in unique prints made from her own paintings, and several sleek candy pink velvet numbers that would befit Barbie, if she were more of a punk NYC nightlife fixture. Basically, the wearer of Campbell’s ensembles is the guaranteed life of the party before they’ve even spoken a word.

Noah Kozlowski, IMG’s director of designer relations and development, says Campbell has been on his radar for quite some time. From his spot in the audience of the MADE x Paypal show, he could tell instantly that she was destined for fashion’s biggest platform.

“Despite the hot summer day, sitting next to my colleague Anthony Demetrius and watching Shanel’s collection in the next level show at Brooklyn Bridge Park gave us chills and we instantly had a jinx moment saying we had to find a way to help her show at NYFW in September,” Kozlowski says. “You know a brand has global growth potential when there is mass appeal, and I can confirm that both our senior leadership team and assistants are obsessed with this designer. Watch this space, remember this name.”

As her garments gain more visibility, worn recently by Chloe and Halle Bailey for an Essence magazine cover and styled on Willow Smith for a Billboard editorial shoot, it would seem that that initial mystery around the brand might shrink away just slightly. But Campbell is constantly growing as a designer, so the overarching Bed On Water style is still rather unpredictable, too fluid to really pin down. How would she define it?

“I don’t know — originality, I guess,” she muses. “Because if you’re wearing one of my prints, you’re not going to look like anybody else, anywhere. That’s why I do everything myself, because I want it to be 100% original. I try to be a better designer every season and I think my evolution has been really dramatic, like you can’t even tell it’s the same person [who designed] all my collections.”

The ever-evolving artist that she is, Campbell’s work draws on myriad sources — from Black history, to Afro-futurism, to her own personal struggles — for inspiration. “My last collection that came out on mannequins, the prints in that collection were picked from the last minute of a two-hour Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin interview,” she says. The final moments of the interview featured a visual glitch that she found interesting, so she warped it in Photoshop and made prints from the graphics. “[It was] inspired by Black history, but then it’s Afrofuturism because it’s something from the past that I'm distorting in the present to make clothes.” For her latest work at the MADE x Paypal event, however, she looked inward, featuring prints from paintings she made throughout last year during an especially dark time in her life.

“For the new stuff, I actually have been telling people I don’t think my paintings have anything to do with Afrofuturism, like that’s not what I was thinking when I made them,” she says. Over the course of 2021, Campbell found herself bogged down by the financial obstacles that stood between her and the clothes she envisioned making. Finding the business too costly to maintain, she took a step back from fashion. As an artist at heart, though, she wasn’t able to fully stop creating and instead turned to painting during her hiatus. “I made them [my paintings] when I was just depressed and frustrated. I wanted to let some creative energy out and that’s what happened. ... It was really just personal pain, coming out.”

Campbell felt let down by an industry to which she’s devoted so much. The talent and determination to thrive in high fashion are without a doubt attributes the designer already has, and she knows it. But it takes more than just those qualities to create the kind of work she’s trying to put out into the world. Executing artistic dreams at the industry’s highest levels, with the standard of quality Campbell holds herself to, doesn’t come cheap.

“Can I curse? Am I allowed to curse? It’s f*cking money,” she says. “Sometimes it’s just really hurtful because you know you have all these ideas and you know you're really talented, but you can’t afford to pop out like other people who might come from a rich family, or [benefit from] nepotism within the industry. So I was just super frustrated and I was like, OK, what’s affordable? Buying some chalk and some spray paint and just doing paintings.”

But it was from those very paintings that the basis for Campbell’s next collection was born. Of course at the time, Campbell wasn’t sure when she might have the chance to incorporate her artwork into a line of clothing, but sometimes that’s what it is to be a visionary: To follow one’s own creative process through whether or not the resources to fully realize them are there, and trusting — or maybe just hoping? — that they’ll fall within reach when the time is right.

“I knew that when I had the opportunity to do another collection — which I had with Made — that I was going to bring those prints into it,” she says. “It was always going to come full circle. But I needed that break to come up with these ideas. So in a way, I’m kind of grateful that I didn’t have the resources to keep doing fashion, because I really needed to figure out my design identity, and figure out what my message was [first]. Now I’m in this universe where I'm obsessed with the prints I create. And I love it.”

Still, as her label’s only full-time employee, creating a complete line for NYFW is quite the undertaking. Just before her interview with TZR, the factory that was supposed to produce her samples called to inform Campbell they wouldn’t be able to anymore. The longer she does this work, the more adept the designer’s become at staying calm under pressure and pivoting when met with roadblocks to ensure everything gets handled, whatever it takes.

Even the name “Bed On Water” is a reference to Campbell’s meditative practice of lying as still on a bed until it feels like floating on water. If there’s anything she has learned well in charting her own path as a creative, it’s how to face down a challenge while keeping her cool, and tapping back into that “Bed On Water” philosophy that keeps her centered.

“We don’t have time to stress out, because if you let this industry stress you out, you’ll fall apart,” Campbell says. “Which has happened to me before. I had to put myself back together and come to this point where I’m like, ‘All right, let’s keep it calm and keep it moving forward.’”

More than her body of work, Campbell is proud of “just sticking with it throughout the hardest parts and maturing as a person.” And as she shapes her brand, her brand shapes her, too, calling upon her to produce, presenting her with various crushing yet transformative hurdles, and pulling rave reviews from friends and fans. It’s clear that fighting to put her creations out into the world has made her a more resilient person. Her toughest battles have catalyzed some of her most incredible creative output.

“There’s been so many times where I was like, ‘yo, f*ck this, I quit!’” Campbell recalls with a laugh. “And then, someone would be like, ‘Shanel, do you want to do this?’ And I’m like, ‘hell yeah I want to do that! I want to do it all!’ If you spoke to me two years ago, I wasn’t like this. I’ve done a lot of maturing as a designer. I wish a lot of what I know now, I knew back then.”

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